Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mary Webb’s legacy: curse or coincidence?

Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm as an antidote to and comic parody of a certain type of fiction: the rural novel as written by authors such as Mary Webb and Sheila Kay-Smith.

I have never been able to see the attraction of what is known as the ‘Loam and Lovechild School of Fiction’ myself  - not even Thomas Hardy’s books have the power to hold my attention – but when I read in an article I found online while researching Stella Gibbons that Stella once expressed her regret to the writer Michael Pick that she had parodied Mary Webb "because she had such an unhappy life", followed by “This was perhaps oversensitive. Webb had, after all, died five years before the publication of Cold Comfort Farm. Her life, though dogged by illness and depression, was by no means without happiness, and her childhood, compared with Stella's, had been idyllic”, I became curious about Mary Webb and decided to investigate further.

I read biographies The Flower of Light and Mary Webb, both by Gladys Mary Coles, and the novel Precious Bane, which is generally considered to be Mary Webb’s masterpiece. I found some familiar scenarios in Precious Bane; I decided to produce this article after reading about what happened to Mary Webb’s husband after her death.

Precious Bane and Prue Sarn
Prue Sarn is the first person narrator in Precious Bane, which is set in rural Shropshire in the early 19th century. She has a harelip, which causes the locals, including the gentry, to believe that she is a witch, dances with the Devil and can put the evil eye on people. This seems like ignorance, stupidity, prejudice and primitive superstition, and yet…

To me, one of the most significant features of her story is that her affairs go well at other people’s expense. This is a big red flag. Stuff ‘just happens’ around her; ‘by chance’ certain events arrange themselves for her benefit. Four people she is involved with come to a bad end; two of them have said things that hit her where it hurts most, which is to me another big red flag.

The main action starts when Prue’s father dies suddenly after a violent quarrel with her brother Gideon, who knocks him down. Gideon makes his mother give him control of the family farm, and devises a plan for making large amounts of money from it. Some of his ideas for expansion sound sensible, but he is a very nasty piece of work who manipulates Prue and talks her into doing a devil’s deal.

Illiterate himself, he wants her to learn reading, writing and arithmetic so that she can take care of the family correspondence, bills and accounts for him, which will save paying an outsider to do it as has been the custom to date. She has often wished for book-learning, and now she will have it – at a price. Gideon makes her swear on the Bible to obey him and work on the farm for many years as an unpaid servant.

He says that they will eventually sell the farm and become rich. They will buy a big house with maids and men servants, good furniture, silver and china and she will have expensive clothes and be a great lady. She is not really interested in all that, but Gideon has always been good at making her want whatever he wants.

Prue, who is around 15 years old at this time, has always assumed that she will marry, be queen of her own household and have a baby of her own. Gideon tells her that no one will ask to marry her because of the disfigurement, but that he will give her the money for medical treatment once he is rich. This is a stroke of genius. Prue falls for the stick and the carrot and immediately agrees to do everything he wants.

The next victim is the travelling weaver, an old man who was called in to weave cloth for the funeral. After his task is complete, he sets off for home but strays from the road in the dark, falls into a mere and drowns. Prue eventually benefits from this accidental death too: the replacement weaver, who is the nephew of the drowned man, is young and very attractive. He is called Kester Woodseaves. He first appears in her life when, four or so years after Prue swears to obey Gideon, he arrives in the middle of a ‘Caking Do’ event to weave linen for the future wedding of Gideon and his intended wife, a very pretty young girl called Jancis. All the women flutter over Kester, and Prue falls in love with him at first sight. She hides away, afraid that he will see her face.

Events conspire to present her to him in a way that displays her best attributes and hides her worst one. It really is a bizarre scenario. Jancis’s father Beguildy, a so-called wizard, thinks up a scheme to fleece rich young gentlemen. He says that he can conjure up the Goddess Venus. This magical operation will involve a dim pink light, smoke, ropes and a trapdoor and Jancis with no clothes on!

Jancis comes to Prue in distress, begging for help, fearing that Gideon will get to hear of it and break off their engagement. Prue thinks that both events are likely to happen. Beguildy has threatened to beat Jancis if she refuses to play her part. Prue offers to take Jancis’s place, wearing a muslin veil over her face so that Beguildy will not notice the substitution. This duly happens. By chance, Kester the weaver is in the dimly-lit room in addition to a rich young gentleman. As he sees, Prue has a very shapely figure and this rivets his attention.

On the next significant occasion, Prue kills a dog that is viciously attacking Kester, and brings a doctor in time to save his life.

Yet again Prue gets to interact with Kester and appear to advantage in a very contrived way. Beguildy decides to in effect sell Jancis to the rich young gentleman. When she refuses to go along with this plan, he gets her hired out as a dairymaid far from home. Prue and Jancis beg Gideon to marry now, but he is obsessed with the idea of making big money before taking on family responsibilities and says that Jancis must work for three years. She goes off, and Prue benefits because Gideon needs her to compose and write love letters on his behalf as does Jancis need Kester, who just happens to be based nearby.  In effect, they are writing to each other. Prue gets an opportunity to indirectly present her accomplishments and her ideas to advantage to Kester and build a relationship with him.

In summary, the rest of the story is one long melodramatic series of disasters, followed by a rather unlikely happy ending – for some.
Jancis cannot bear her new position, returns home and persuades Gideon to agree to marry her as soon as the harvest is in; there is a very good crop of corn, and it all gets reaped and stacked away safely. After helping with the harvest, Kester goes off to London to spend some months learning how to do coloured weaving. Mrs Beguildy engineers a pretext to get her husband out of the way so that Gideon and Jancis can spend some time together - after all, they will be married in a few days’ time – but he returns home unexpectedly early because an interfering meddler has told him what was going on behind his back, and catches them together. Beguildy is very angry because he is still planning to sell Jancis to the rich young gentleman. There is a big fight and Gideon knocks Beguildy unconscious.

Beguildy sets fire to Gidion’s corn ricks in revenge, ruining him financially, wasting all his past efforts and destroying his plans for the future. Gideon becomes insane with fury and loses what remains of his humanity. He decides that Jancis is the Devil’s daughter and says he will never marry her nor see her again. The Beguildys leave the area. Life on the farm becomes even harder and Gideon grudges every penny spent on medical care for his mother and food for the people who help with the work. Prue’s mother becomes ill and incapable of work and Gideon sees her as a heavy burden, a ‘useless eater’. He forces her to say that she would rather be dead than alive. Just as Prue does, she consents to her victimisation.  Gideon then murders his mother by arranging for her to be given poisoned tea.

Jancis returns, bringing her and Gideon’s baby with her. She says that Mrs Beguildy is dead; her father is in prison awaiting trial. Gideon will not speak to her, apart from telling her to go away. Jancis drowns herself and the baby in the mere. Gideon starts seeing the ghosts of the dead people; he drowns himself in the mere. Prue is accused by the villagers not only of being a Jonah who is responsible for her family’s misfortunes but of actually murdering her mother, Jancis and Gideon. They turn on her, but Kester, who has written to Prue telling her that he prefers her to all the London ladies, arrives out of the blue on his horse and carries her away from it all. 

Presumably they live happily ever after together.

Some thoughts about Precious Bane
I can see why this type of story gets parodied. The dialect puts me off and the old rural customs seem very odd. It is difficult to take some parts of the story seriously, but there are some good and amusing bits here and there outside the main scenario. There is also much material of interest to anyone who is investigating unseen influences.

One of the parts I particularly like is the description of the hiring fair. Young people seeking a position stand in a line holding the tools of their trade. A cook smacks young men over the head with her wooden spoon if they misbehave, and tailors run up and down the line of young women threatening to cut their petticoats short with their scissors!

The miller confides in Prue that he can’t stand his wife and children and wishes he could drown the lot of them like kittens in the mill pond!

There is a touching scene where Prue gives her cat a big saucer of cream, a very unusual treat, and the cat is at first afraid to touch it as she thinks it is too good to be true and she will be punished.

As for the unseen influences, by coincidence both Gideon and Jancis say something that hits Prue where it hurts most. This makes me wonder whether Prue unconsciously cursed them.

Prue is Jancis’s friend and is fond of her, but she has often envied Jancis for her beauty and rose-like mouth, and could have strangled her for her smile. When Prue offers herself as a replacement ‘Venus’ to save Jancis’s reputation with the man she intends to marry, Jancis thoughtlessly says that the best part of the plan is that it won’t matter to Prue as she will never have a lover. This seems a cruel reward for a kind act. Prue feels very angry and once again would have liked to strangle Jancis. When Prue asks Gideon to get some extra help on the farm as the workload is too much, he says she should marry and bring the lad to work on the farm – if anyone will have her. This too is very cruel. Prue may make allowances and soon recover, but once a button has been pressed, the damage is done and the curse that is launched cannot be recalled.

The replacement of the old weaver with an attractive young one to Prue’s benefit reminds me of the scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette where Lucy Snowe gets into the company of a new, attractive young doctor because the family doctor is on holiday at the time a little girl falls down the stairs.

If Prue had not been so wrapped up in her own affairs she might have understood the significance of what was being said and done around her and prevented some of the deaths. However, she benefitted from Gideon’s death in that it released her from the oath she took. If he had lived she might have been bound to slave on the farm for many more years.

Prue may not be the only person involved in Gideon’s destruction. Beguildy with his silly spells, cheap charms and preposterous claims is a fraudulent wizard and yet…he has always had a grudge against Gideon not only because of Jancis but also because of something Gideon’s father had done. There is a feud between them right from the start. Beguildy plans to get even. When Gideon strikes him hard, he curses Gideon by fire and water, sowing and harvesting and threatens to destroy him via a wax doll he will make. Beguildy predicts several times that Gideon will end up drowning and never keep money.

Beguildy and Gideon are both obsessed with their money-making schemes: selling Jancis and investing everything in the corn. Each hits the other where it hurts most by sabotaging his plans. 

Beguildy gets off lightly for his crime, on the grounds of extreme provocation because of Jancis. Where did he get the idea of setting fire to the ricks from? Early on in the story, Mrs Beguildy, who is very much in favour of the proposed match, thinks up schemes to get her husband out of the way so that Gideon and Jancis can have some time alone together: Beguildy sits in the corner and scowls whenever Gideon visits his house. On one occasion, Mrs Beguildy lets the sow loose so that her husband must chase after her; on another she sets light to the thatch on their barn so Beguildy has to run around with buckets of water. She starts a new blaze as soon as Beguildy has extinguished the previous one. Perhaps this episode planted the idea in Beguildy’s mind.

This story can be seen as a cautionary tale, a warning not to invest too much in the future. Prue and her mother think that it would be best to improve their standard of living in small steps as they go along, as opposed to gambling on doing everything in one huge leap forward after many years of drudgery, slavery and deprivation as Gideon plans to do. Theirs seems the better approach.

Unscrupulous people, cult leaders and people who charge their clients large amounts for finding (mythical) unadvertised, high-powered executive jobs for example, all take the same approach as Gideon does. Theirs is the only way; only they have the key to salvation; only they have the solution to your problems, you must obey them and pay their price or you will be forever damned and never get what you want. Sometimes these voices and ideas come from the inside.

There is a lot of spinning and weaving in Precious Bane, which may be partly symbolic.

Precious Bane and synchronicity
I collected a free newspaper on the day that I started to produce this article. I started on the crossword and found one clue that included ‘lets the sow loose’ and another to which the solution was the name ‘Gideon’!

Mary Webb’s life and death
Mary Webb died in 1927, at the age of forty-six. She was poor, lonely, depressed and ill at the time. She and her husband Henry Webb had become estranged and he was infatuated with a young girl. Her works were virtually unknown to the general public: recognition and financial rewards came only after her death.

Mary Webb did indeed have a good start in life, but later experienced much pain and suffering. She developed a disfiguring disease and was devastated first by the death of her beloved father and later by the emotional withdrawal of her husband. However, she seems to have been her own worst enemy and some of her problems and suffering could surely have been avoided.

It was interesting to read that Mary Webb lived in Hampstead for a while: she moved there when her husband got a position at a nearby school. Stella Gibbons spent her whole life in the area. Both Mary and Stella married a man a few years younger than themselves called Webb, but Stella unlike Mary wrote under her maiden name. Both of the husbands died prematurely, in their early fifties.

Mary Webb and Ouida
Some of the things I read about Mary Webb immediately reminded me of similar things I had read in biographies of the Victorian novelist Ouida, although the differences greatly outnumber the similarities.
For example, both writers went in for eccentric behaviour and the wearing of unsuitable clothes. Both were humanitarians, and both were opposed to the killing of animals for sport. Both believed that someone was poisoning their food. Both obsessively checked up on, stalked even, the men in their lives, eventually driving them away.

Neither lady appears to have had much in the way of common sense, or financial sense.  Both had the habit of inappropriately spending or giving away far more money than they could afford - by uncontrolled and unwise extravagance in Ouida’s case and uncontrolled and unwise generosity to the extreme poor in Mary’s - then making demands on their publishers for advances or ‘loans’. Both were out of touch with reality in many ways.

Although it seems sad that Mary Webb, unlike Ouida, did not in her lifetime get the popular success, personal recognition and financial rewards she deserved, judging by what Ouida did with it all and how she ended up, Mary too might have wasted the money and been just as unhappy with it as she was without it.

After Mary Webb’s death
After reading about Mary Webb’s behaviour and state of mind, I can’t blame Henry Webb for having had enough and preferring the company and home comforts of his attractive young pupil Kathleen Wilson.

Henry Webb married Kathleen almost two years after Mary Webb’s death. He was around forty-four; she was twenty-one. Mary Webb’s books started to sell in large numbers, and the couple became possessed of a goldmine beyond all expectations in the form of the royalties. The wealthy couple bought themselves a large house in London, a cottage in the New Forest, a yacht and a Bentley car. They went on holidays to Italy.

Henry died almost ten years after the marriage. He fell from a mountain peak in the Lake District. Kathleen inherited the copyrights and a large sum of money; she went on to marry Mary Webb’s publisher Jonathan Cape. Just like Mary Webb, she died of an incurable disease at the age of forty-six.

Some thoughts about unseen influences and Mary Webb
There are three things in the biographical material that seem particularly significant to me: Mary’s assumption of her mother’s position at her father’s side, Henry Webb’s arrival in Mary Webb’s life and the manner of his and Kathleen’s deaths.

Mary had a very strong, positive bond with her father. When her mother remained in her bedroom for years after a riding accident, Mary, who was in her 14th year at the time of the accident, took over much of her mother’s role, thus getting a lot of her father’s attention and companionship. It is noteworthy that she got this at her mother’s expense. It seems strange that her mother, who was bedridden for a few months but was then able to move around, in effect opted out of being a mother and running the household for so long. After five years, she suddenly came downstairs one day and resumed her position, displacing Mary who felt side-lined and unneeded.

Mary was devastated when her father died - after falling from a ladder - around ten years later. In her husband Henry Webb she found a soulmate who shared her father’s qualities and profession. By chance, he came into her life just after her father’s death: Henry Webb’s father retired and the Webb family came to live in Mary’s Shropshire village. I wonder whether she had been wishing and wishing that her father would come back, and Henry was drawn to the scene and sucked in. The Webb family were certainly fellow natives of Shropshire, but was it more than coincidence that they decided to come and live in that particular small village?

I also wonder whether there was more than chance at work in the deaths of Henry and Kathleen. Had they been cursed by Mary when Henry first started to show an interest in his pupil? Some curses take effect over many years. Their story reminds me of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and Kathleen Raine and Gavin Maxwell come to mind here too.

Was it just by coincidence that Mary’s father and husband both died after falling from a high place? Gladys Mary Coles suggests that Henry’s death might have been more than an accident: it was his second fall in recent months, and although there was no suicide note there was a letter to Kathleen in his pocket. Mountain climbing is dangerous and many other people have died falling from the same peak, but conscious or unconscious guilt and remorse could certainly have resulted in conscious or unconscious suicide.

Mary Webb made first her father then her husband the centre of her life. When creative people concentrate on a person in this way, it often has damaging effects on the objects of the obsessive attention. J. M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys come to mind here. Depression, depletion by energy vampirism, illness, accidents and bad luck may be symptoms of being targeted in this way. Victims who have options may well withdraw and out of sheer self-preservation reject the perpetrator, which may cause the latter to deteriorate.

One final, small coincidence: Mary Webb died in St. Leonards-on-Sea; Sheila Kaye-Smith, who also wrote rural novels that inspired Stella Gibbons’s parody, was born there.